Are you making this mistake in your workouts?
I get asked all the time about how much weight to lift on a given exercise. We all want to feel like we’re doing enough in our workouts. While weight selection is completely individual to each person depending on lifting experience and body size and type, there are still basic guidelines that apply to all of us. If we’ve been exercising for a while and our body adapts and gets stronger, generally we need to progressively increase the weight we're lifting. I talk to women every week who are confused over whether or not lifting heavier weights grows bulky muscle and lifting lighter weights builds lean muscle. The fact is that muscle is muscle. Read this article if you're still not convinced that getting bulky muscle from lifting weights is one of the last things to worry about. When weight lifting, our goal should be to increase lean muscle mass and there needs to be enough tension to allow for this growth. While we do need to lift heavy enough loads to reduce body fat and increase lean muscle, what’s more important than the number on the weight is how hard our muscles are working.
How to know if the weights are too heavy or too light
The most important thing when performing an exercise is form and technique. Every repetition counts. The weight should be challenging enough to where we can complete the designated repetitions to “technical failure”. If the repetitions for the workout are 10-12, we should be able to do at least 10 repetitions with good form and feel the muscle become tired by the last 2 repetitions. Once we get to 12 reps on the same exercise, we can increase the weight.
If a weight is too light, we can barely control it or create enough tension in the muscle to shape it. Tension is squeezing a muscle forcefully. If the weight is too heavy, we end up bouncing or using momentum to move the weight. This causes a loss of control, shortened range of motion and takes stress off of the muscle we’re trying to target.
Our bodies are efficient, they will move a weight in the path of least resistance. If we do a bicep curl with a weight that’s too heavy, our body will do anything to move it by recruiting other muscle groups like the back. This transferring of weight to other muscle groups in order to move more weight is cheating. It defeats the purpose of the exercise and over time, can lead to injury.
When we practice exercises or movement patterns consistently, over time we’re able to use a greater percentage of muscles and have a stronger muscle contraction. When our muscles are more developed, we can exercise with a greater force and intensity. This means we can have a better workout by just activating more muscle fibers and creating more tension in the muscle without increasing the load.
Mind to muscle connection
Do you have a body part that never seems to change no matter how many exercises you do for it? The answer could be in creating a stronger mind to muscle connection. Weight lifting is training our muscles. It should be given the same attention we do any other skill like playing piano, taking voice lessons or learning a new language. When performing a weighted exercise, we need to be able to feel the tension in the muscle on both the lifting (contraction) and the lowering (eccentric) portion. This strengthens and builds the muscle through the range of motion the joint is trained in. Contracting a muscle burns calories while shaping and changing the body.
When we can’t feel the muscle working, it’s probably because there’s a weakened connection. The first step is to lighten the load and strengthen the mind to muscle connection until we’re able to really feel it. Practice squeezing a muscle forcefully with no weight to initiate the movement. For example, bodyweight butt kicks or bracing the abs during a deep breathing drill. Try slowing down the tempo of the exercise, count to three when lowering, hold then count to one while raising to the start. Next perform the exercise with weight, know what muscles should be working and learn how to contract and isolate the muscle without letting surrounding muscles take over.
Checking our egos
It’s human nature to reach for the heavier weights, whether we’re by ourselves or in a class, most of us are competitive individuals. Not to mention, the gym can be intimidating if we allow it to be. It’s easy to feel judged or that our workout won’t be good enough if we don’t use a heavier weight. Most of us know it doesn’t work like this. No one is actually looking or cares about the number on the dumbbell we’re lifting, unless they want it for their next exercise. So instead of focusing on a number, we should pick a weight we can control with good form and technique while maintaining maximum tension in the right muscle groups.
Different weights for different muscle groups
Some muscles are bigger than others, which means they’re able to handle more load and make for a better workout. The lower body has the largest muscles which includes the glutes, quads and hamstrings, so they can handle more load than a smaller muscle like biceps and triceps. Think exercises like squats, leg press, deadlifts and lunges. The back has the widest muscle in the body so exercises like rows and pull-ups should be done with heavier weight.
A compound exercise, which works multiple muscle groups at once, and includes movement around two or more joints, will typically use more weight than an isolated exercise which only moves one joint. For example, the leg press is a compound exercise involving the hip, knee and ankle joints and the quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves. The hamstring curl isolates the hamstrings and the movement occurs only around the knee joint.
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